Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Design Thinking and Serendipity at BHive Workspaces

The word 'design' - it’s such a crowd puller. You attend a session titled 'design thinking' with the expectation of getting close to a breakthrough idea. Or simply for serendipity. And Mukesh Gupta didn’t disappoint, on both counts. And it turns out that I was not the only one who thought the session was really insightful. It's got a five star rating on the meetup.


The venue itself was a ‘beehive’, even at 7 in the evening. There was a lot of activity. BHive Workspaces is an incubator for entrepreneurs who need office space and everything else that comes with it (including coffee!), without actually having to make a capital investment. The idea of renting out cubicles/office space on a small scale isn’t new. But there is a certain excitement and energy about the place that you couldn't possibly miss. I came to know about the event when a friend shared information about the meetup on a social network.

A Plug 

Before the presentation started, there were a couple of 'part-time' entrepreneurs looking to test and solicit feedback for their app called ShareCard. The mobile app is designed to help you connect with people with similar interests during events/conferences. It’s got a simple interface and uses Linkedin credentials for authentication. What’s the idea behind the app? It’s to help you identify and connect with people without going through all that trial and error. And of course, for all those OCD folks out there, that’s that much less hand sanitizer to use in between! So the app uses bluetooth to connect to other folks who have also downloaded the app and are on the 'lookout' to connect.
Interesting stuff. Should be piloted in a larger event.

And finally - Design Thinking

Mukesh is Director - Customer Advocacy at SAP, and has conducted several workshops on design thinking (among other topics). I loved the way he answered questions - pretty convincingly and passionately. He came across as being very well read, and had the articulation necessary to be that really engaging story teller. He certainly makes the list of speakers I'd listen to even if I didn't know what they were going to talk about.
The session started with a round of introductions. Almost everyone attending seemed to have either been involved in a start-up or were seriously thinking about it. Or were somewhere in between. There was even one guy who was serving his notice period and another who had quit corporate life a couple of days back.

To help us understand the concept, he started with a problem. Bangalore’s problem -  garbage. He described the issue; there’s a pile of garbage outside his house and he asked the audience what to do. Some of the creative answers included taking pictures of offenders and posting large cut-outs to embarrass them! There was another one that introduced gamification into the equation. Make it a competition because sometimes the pain of loss is greater than the pleasure of gain! And then there was the idea of fighting the notion of garbage itself. Make people see the value of recycling, reusing and reducing. And that’s when Mukesh brought us back to the real problem. He asked us what we were trying to do. Everyone had jumped right into providing solutions even before first understanding the problem. It was like a smack on the back of the head!

So the first step to design thinking is not to solve but to understand the problem. You can understand it by at least two ways. Observation and interviews. He said we should ask questions like ' Why does it happen, how does it happen, when does it happen, who are the folks impacted by it… etc. to gather insight into the problem. Insight. An excellent definition for insight was when someone has an ‘ah ha’ moment when trying to understand the problem. So you watch the problem happening and you ask questions to everyone involved.

Point of View: The next stage is to identify a point of view. From whose perspective are you trying to solve the problem? This is a very important phase to the problem. Actually the most important. Your insights and solutions will vary significantly depending on whose POV you take. This was explained very beautifully with the garbage example. If you look at it from the house owners point of view (outside whose house the garbage is dumped), the problem is very different from the person who is dumping the garbage. Similarly, the government agency who not only has to pick it up, but also needs to dispose it off safely. So you are basically creating a persona. Yeah, familiar territory :). Like explained above, the needs of each persona are also different.
So in short, POV = insight + persona + need.

Ideation: Once a POV has been established, it’s time to ideate. How have others solved the same problem? How does industry handle it? We simply make a brain dump or use any of the brainstorming methods to list out whatever we can. Get a list of things you can do. Don’t categorize or rate any idea just yet. Use triggers to find different routes. Some people even use a dictionary to randomly choose a word and then by association, try and thrash out a few ideas. Once you have a bunch of ideas, toss a coin to select the best one. Kidding :) It's going to be a tough task. How do you make sure you are selecting a great idea and not just a good idea? How do you select a breakthrough idea as opposed to an interesting one? One way is to go against your intuition and select an idea that seems to be difficult. The idea you select also depends on the problem you are trying to solve. Don't select the first idea that you get. Mukesh drew a graph that plotted ideas against time. The graph showed how ideas started slowly, then peaked and then after a time, starts to drop as ideas start to dry up and then after a little struggle, starts to build momentum again. It's the ideas in the second peak that usually lead to breakthroughs. Usually. Sometimes it just takes an apple :)

When you design anything, you either design it for yourself or for a very particular set of people. As you start to broaden your criteria, you end up trying to please everyone, and that's not had very pleasant endings. So how do you ensure success? Mukesh talked about a thumb rule. Try to build a product that satisfies 5 percent of your early adopters.

He also suggested that brainstorming should be done while on one's feet if you want better ideas. It's got something to do with the fact that for creative solutions, most people look up/throw their head back to 'look' for inspiration. One tries to reach the creative part of the brain. You use a divergent method for creative solutions where you create many options and choose and expand in an iterative manner. However, when you are seated, you tend to put your head down. The 'head down' or convergent approach is also useful sometimes, where you are reaching out to the other side of the brain. Which approach you use really depends on the problem. We continued with the garbage problem and we took up the idea of making garbage valuable. The audience was then told to build the idea. Any idea that took the value proposition forward was accepted and those that didn't, were ignored.

Prototype: The science behind why a prototype brings an idea to life is what it does to the five senses. The moment someone can touch, see, hear your idea, you've already done most of the selling, without the need to say a lot. You've brought something to life. It's alive! Your prototype doesn't have to be anywhere near perfect. In fact, it shouldn't. The primary purpose of your prototype should be to solicit feedback. And this prototype-feedback iteration is done at least a couple of times, till you are confident to make a Beta launch.

Feedback: The most important aspect of seeking feedback is that you should never use the opportunity to defend your design. It's extremely difficult. The ShareCard folks were seeking feedback for their app and one could see the difficulty in keeping quiet and listening without saying anything in defense of their baby. Listen carefully to everything your user is saying. And also remember to listen/hear what they don't say about your product. What they don't say usually tells you more. Videotaping the feedback is highly recommended so that you can revisit it again to garner your 'insight'.

Avoid using questionnaires, especially those that narrow down observations to what you think their answers should be. Your survey essentially should have 3 parts. What they like, what they wish for and then Questions/Comments.

The most innovative solutions lay at the intersection of desirability (appeals to the emotions), Viability (can it be done) and Feasibility.
Design thinking is about using a mindset (that involves people) and a toolset (that involves the process discussed above) in a suitable environment.

When to use design thinking

  • Ambiguous situations
  • Issues where there are multiple possibilities
  • Complex problems

When not to use design thinking

  • When the objective is clear.
  • When you already know what needs to be done. You just do it.
  • When the solution is simple and your need is to use the most obvious fix


Another Formula

Your problem statement could use the following structure
How might we __(state issue)__ for __(whom/POV)__.

The Deck

He probably took lots of help from a creative 4 year old to get these slides together:)

And that garbage problem? Here's a spark that seems to be turning into wild fire.

Must read books:

  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Mukesh has also published a book called Business Prophet. It's a poem that provides simple, practical advice about starting running and exiting businesses.

Did you know? 

Steve Jobs had a fear of buttons. And looking at all the smart phones around, I think it's something that is bloody contagious!

Friday, December 5, 2014

FIR - Innovation

Missing In Action!

Describe the missing person
  • Unmarried, undetermined gender, about as old as the human race, around 5 feet 5 inches, black hair, black eyes, shy, nods head to say yes AND no :) Responds to the name - Innovation.
Characteristics of Innovation
  • Usually is something that adds value
  • Could be something new
  • Might be an answer to a problem
  • Starts with an intent
  • Needs to be looked at with a birds eye view
  • Is about the 'why' not the 'what'
  • Is also about the 'why not'
  • Needs a suitable environment to thrive
  • Needs lots of love and involvement, usually moody
  • Innovation is all around us
  • Innovation is human nature

Why is Innovation Missing?
  • Lack of management support
  • Needs a strong foundation
  • Needs courage to speak up
  • Innovation has cultural overtures
  • Suffers from "what-do-others-think-about-my-idea-syndrome"
  • Being treated for Atychiphobia (Fear of Failure)
  • Recently diagnosed with "Happy-with-status-quo virus"

How do we find Innovation?
  • Encouraging the spark called courage
  • Remember that anyone can innovate
  • Innovation can be incremental or disruptive
  • Innovation needs persistence
  • Innovation needs to be proto typed
  • Needs a user base for the innovation
  • If you can help people find the answer to WIIFM, you are probably close to finding the missing person
  • Remember to seek and accept all the help available and take action!
  • Innovation starts with me/you
Last Seen: On Friday, 5th December, at 5 PM at Mugdha's discussion on Innovation at STC India 2014.

If you have any information about the whereabouts of innovation, tweet location to #STCIndia2014

And yes, there is a reward! ____________ sponsored from TIBCO ;)

Monday, December 1, 2014


Chiguru is Mahindra's way of bringing people who have two things in common; cars and kids! Chiguru means 'bud' in Kannada. But for the folks with a little more imagination, it could just be a play of words (chikka - meaning small) and guru. Mahindra & Mahindra conducted their second event in Bangalore for customer kids, on Saturday, 22nd November, 2013. This was an excellent platform for kids under 13 to display their talents, and get recognized. Sources said that almost 200 customers (who qualified) were invited from Bangalore. The event was to start at 3, but since customers came like they were bringing their cars for service, the event actually started well after 4! The location of the event was the Kamala Bai School, which is a surprising large campus tucked away just off Queen's Road. There were several new (unregistered) Mahindra cars in the grounds (including the all new Scorpio). Rumor has it that the property belongs to one of the M&M agencies in Bangalore.

Waiting for the kids as they arrived, were artists who created caricatures, and drew tattoos and mehendi for those who could sit still! For those who couldn't (sit still), they tried their best :)

Joanne's reaction at her caricature - Does it even look like me??
The kids were welcomed at the entrance with chips packets and tetra pack juice. The organizers seemed to have left no stone unturned in their efforts to make this a memorable and enjoyable evening. The auditorium was of the right size. The sound system could make your heart beat to its rhythm. The stage was designed for a star performance and the professional lighting seemed to be every dancer's dream come true.
And the icing on the cake? Definitely the pretty judges :)

Since we were still waiting for the crowd to come in and form a quorum, (though 3 PM to 8 PM may be too large a window for some folks) the MC started the event with getting to know the participating kids. The first game was about doing exactly the opposite of what she said. So if she said sit, they had to remain standing and so on. Now you'd think that this was the perfect game to find out who's best at not listening. And you'd probably expect all kids to be really good at this. But as luck would have it, even that doesn't happen when you really want it to happen.

And the last lady standing for not following instructions.

Since the MC wasn't very successful in keeping a bunch of kids engaged, it was time for some magic. Literally. While some of the kids were awestruck at the mention of the word 'magic' there were other kids (and parents) who were trying (successfully!) to figure the secret behind each trick. With so many magic shows, it's difficult to keep kids of this generation occupied. Even then, these kids were buzzing around the magician like bees. He was actually finding it difficult to choose who would volunteer, while at the same time trying to hide all the secrets behind his tricks!

Soon it was time to register for the painting/drawing competition. Kids were given 30 minutes to get creative. All the kids were given a kit with crayons, paint and brushes. And did we have some artists. MF Hussain would have felt a little insecure at some of the 30-minute-creations.

And when the prizes were announced (later that evening), it was a 7 year old who walked away with the first prize. Not for the drawing, but more so probably for the message. It was a simple picture of three trees that were at some stage of being cut down. And one tree was on the ground, with just a stump still in the ground. The message said Save Trees - for a better future. Complete with correct spelling! And her dad gets to blog about it. Here :)

After the exhausting session of drawing and painting, it was time for a break. M&M had some yummy surprises in everyone's food packages. It had all the stuff that kids usually enjoy. From pastries, sandwiches, sweets, there was something in there for everyone.

After a quick snack, the kids were all waiting for their 3 minutes in the limelight. Of course some of them gouged on both the lime and the light. If it was MF Hussain who felt bad during the previous event, it was time for the Prabhu Devas and Michael Jackson to get embarrassed with the impressive performances by the kids. The kids really gave the judges a tough time making a decision. In this case, it was not one, but they had to make some 3 choices in each category. Not just the judges, but even the MC had a tough time keeping up with the kids. Some of them also managed to get the MC all tongue tied with their cheeky responses! Finally, when we were nearing closing time, the organizers had to ration time among the remaining participants. There were a few kids who didn't seem very pleased with the abrupt stoppage of their events. But that's what happens when someone doesn't take a hint!
And here is a clip of Joanne's song. You can really see why such events are a challenge. I'm surprised she continued singing after the first 'interruption'.

There was also a customer sharing experience that was squeezed in. Two customers shared their experiences with M&M. One of them has been driving Mahindra cars for over a decade. Both had only good things to say. Mr Bose, Mahindra's regional head for South India also shared a few words about encouraging children and creating opportunities. But everyone were still remembering the antics of his three year old (who was also participating). This kid had just caused a stir on the stage. He liked the wireless mike so much that he refused to give it back and the organizers were seen chasing him around to make sure they had the 'last word'. If anyone was feeling bored till then, this incident was what they needed for a good laugh.

M&M were generous with the prizes. Large trophies along with Rs. 3000 in gift coupons for first prize winners.

Mahindra did try and make a lot of kids happy by ensuring that there were as many winners as was possible. If they didn't win a prize, they had already won a great experience (not to mention the reliable cars) and a few awesome friends in the process!

All the winners with staff from M&M and their ASC (Authorized Service Centers)

I'd like to end with the often repeated, but seldom practiced rule. Wear your seat belts. If by some misfortune, you do get into a crash, all those airbags won't be able to protect you. Humpty dumpty would have had more hope.
Many people don't know that if seat belts are not worn, there is an interlock in the system that actually prevents the airbags from deploying. Because if they deployed, and you were not wearing seat-belts, the force of the airbags opening up in your face could kill you. If you weren't already dead for not wearing your seat-belt that is. Drive safe and remember -

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Because it's there...

Imagine an organization where the best minds in the Indian documentation industry put their heads together to thrash out solutions to everyday (writing) issues. Imagine if the Edwins, Suchis, Kumars, Basus, Gurus and everyone else who's made an impact in this field, all worked for a single organization.  Oh, stop dreaming and go back to work! Not going to happen. Because apparently, there was one law that Newton missed. One interpretation evidently says, the higher you go, the narrower your vision becomes. Or something to that effect. At least for some.

I've been enjoying tech writing conferences from 2007. I've attended all the STC events till date (from 2007) and all the TC world events in India as well. As promised, here's my take from the front seat.

Introducing.... in the blue corner, the 16 year old veteran, the STC India Chapter taking on the challenger, in the red corner, the 3 year old TC World India.

Round 1 - Value for Money: STC goes in with a quick left, right combination. With a 50 dollar membership, you can attend the main conference for 'free'. 1000 rupees more will get you the pre-conference too. TC world conferences are steeply priced, comparatively. I wish I knew who was making all the money. STC events manage to squeeze in more tracks as the duration of each track is usually less.  Which makes sense, keeping in mind the reducing attention spans. The breaks are also shorter. A lot of time is wasted at the TC World conferences.
TC World seems to have lost a few teeth in the first round.

Round 2 - Content: International does not automatically mean quality. We are in the communication business. Quite a few speakers, especially from non English (US/UK) speaking countries, struggle to express themselves at TC World despite all the hype created about the topic itself. I'm not saying they are all like that. But if you've had two experiences, one bad and the other good, which one is likely to stick in your head?
STC topics are selected by a panel of 'experts'. There's a call for papers and only the 'best' are selected. I don't know how it is done in TC World India. But whatever method they are bungling with seems to work once in a while. While we had Scott Abel talk in one event, another was wasted with some IT guy who became an MP. Novelty=10 Utility=0.
It's not going too well for TC World.
Round 3 - Attendance: Both these events are well attended. But TC World being restricted to Bangalore, obviously sees mostly local folks. But if you are looking at participants from outside India, it's the TC World conferences that has more participants from outside India.
With some good defensive moves from both contenders, this round is evenly matched.

Round 4 - Venues: STC walks away with the prize in this department as well. Sometimes. Don't think so? Visit Zuri. TC World on the other hand is getting predictable at the Taj Vivanta, Bangalore. When you get predictable in a bout, you get hurt.
Not looking too good for TC World again.

Round 5 - Sponsors: We have a few companies that jump at every opportunity. But generally, I find this area to be evenly matched.
STC is a little surprised at the way TC World is matching punch for punch now.

Round 6 - Salary Survey: Another reason to attend the STC event. But like I've repeated many times over, it would have made more sense to do it by role. Create at least two surveys, one for people managers and the other for individual contributors. Otherwise, it doesn't make much sense. People managers are usually paid more. It screws up the figures if this distinction is  not clearly made.
All that effort is making STC to sweat a little hard.

Round 7 - Maturity: So this one is going to hurt. At least one of these groups is run by a set of more mature people. The other group is busy in the censorship business determining what's good for its audience simply based on references to the opponent. Not on possible value that the content could mean to the audience. If there is a mention of the competitor, stuff just goes missing. It's a pity that some people can't/won't even try to see eye to eye. That's with or without heels.
Talking about eyes... TC World seems to have one black eye.

Round 8 - Food: This is probably the last item on the 'menu'. But in my personal experience, I found that food served at STC conferences to be a little more palatable. There's also more variety to select from. So if you have to choose to go for a conference and you've heard it all before, there's some hope for you if you've selected the STC event.
And what do we have? It's a Knock Out.

Actually, on viewing replays, the Knock out was a result of TC world tripping over their own shoelaces and landing on the head. Ouch.

What I'd like to see in these conferences

Innovation is not just about a flash mob dance, where the audience is left wondering about who's flashing and who's dancing. Neither is it about a flash drive. TC World often gives all participants a USB drive. While the idea itself is novel, never has it served the purpose it was intended for. Some of these drives even set off antivirus alarms. I kid you not! They've even contained outdated versions of presentations that were not even close to the ones that were actually shared by the presenter. Not to mention that the majority of presentations made, were missing! Concerned about privacy? Stop pulling my leg. You had no business putting up private content in the first place. It suddenly becomes private when someone asked for a copy? There were a couple of things that TC world tried. One was assuming that because this industry has more of the XY chromosome, they thought that kids were a concern. Day care on a Friday was arranged. And Murphy took care of the rest. So while I agree that the TC World organizers tried new things, how much of it actually worked, is another matter. I appreciate the STC organizers for at least seeking suggestions and ideas. Not simply conducting an event, without really understanding the audience and their needs. Try and be more participative. Even Hitler saw success, but it was only for a while.

Introduce (and talk about) a hash-tag for the event and encourage the audience to tweet their thoughts about each presentation as and when it happens. And there's a large screen that shows the tweets as they are sent out. This is being done in several other conferences. Perception is reality. Learn to manage it.

Here's your chance to connect with your audience. Conducting video interviews with participants will be useful to promote the event next year. Nothing works as well as 'shot at the location'. Record feedback about the conference.

Eat the cake and have it
Video record all the tracks. And make them available at least to members. TC world had made an attempt to try this and there was also one STC conference in Pune where all tracks were recorded. But of course none of us got to see these recorded tracks. There's a wealth of information being shared. It kills some of us that we can't be at more than one place at the same time. Solve that problem for us.

Please ensure you have reviewed every presentation before the event. People don't always attribute the lack of standards to the speaker. It's shared with the STC or TC World brand. So guess who's taking the beating when something is not right? I'm still aghast when someone presents a deck that uses a yellow font on a white background. Worse, the font is minute, AND there are no telescopes in the conference kit! When selecting a speaker, make sure that the check box for 'common sense' is selected.

Time Management
For once, please keep time. You are disrespecting the punctual people when you wait for late-comers. Start on time, end on time. Don't insult yourself talking about the Indian Stretchable Time. Every time. Make sure there is sufficient time to scuttle between halls before each session starts. Orchestrate the tracks. Assist the speaker in managing time. We could have the 'smarties' walking around with a sign board that said 10 minutes left, or 5 minutes left. Just like they walk around before each boxing round. Let there be hard stops. You are allowed to knock out your audience, but only within the stipulated time. Otherwise, it's a foul!

Apps for Feedback
Collect feedback from your participants. Please don't use paper. Use apps. What? No smart phone? That person needs the feedback more than you do!

Encourage Carpooling to and from the venue
I'd go a step further and try and connect with folks coming from other parts of the country. Offer to take them around the city. If you have a couple of bedrooms that you could spare, you could invite them home. Not everyone gets sponsored by their companies. This good deed can maybe returned when the event happens in your city. Facilitate this collaboration.

A little heart for Corner Cases
Be considerate to special needs in your audiences. There was more than one occasion where there was this handicapped writer (he was visually impaired and had only one functional hand, but by golly, what a thought process he had!) Firstly, I think such folks should be given a discount in their registration dues. Secondly, imagine trying to eat all the wet stuff with one hand, holding the plate and cutlery. Lookout for such folks and make sure they are comfortable. Just a sandwich or roll should make them happy. It goes a long way to show that you care and that you've thought about everything. Also, there are several folks who lost their jobs recently. Can these events be considerate and allow such folks to attend at maybe student rates?

And oh the title? That's what a famous mountaineer said when asked why he climbed Mount Everest. Some of us attend (and conduct!) these conferences with the same attitude.

Make it matter. Impress your audience. Inspire. Make sure they'll pay for their own registrations the next time, when their companies don't.  And they see value.

I'll leave you with what I think could be a powerful thought. We all know that over 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. So why are we still writing manuals?

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Case of Diminishing Returns?

The 3rd edition of the TC World Executive Conference at Bangalore for Leaders in the Tech Writing Industry (after The Emperors New Clothes and Management Lessons) was, well, not as (for want of a better word)  productive as the first two. Though according to the organizers, about 10 more folks had registered this time (compared to the 50  participants last time), it looked like there were fewer who actually attended, especially from outside Bangalore. There were a few familiar faces, but there were also several missing. It didn't start on time like it has in the past. Waiting for late comers, as usual.


Khadim Batti’s key note was about how he and his partner ventured out as entrepreneurs. He described the struggles and the wins along the way and how they stumbled across their current offering (reviewed here). He stressed on the importance of MVP (minimum viable product) and customer validation of the product being offered. And how do you know if you’ve launched at the right time? If you haven’t received (enough) flak from customers for version one, you’ve probably waited too long to launch. Khadim described how they got their first customer and it was this customer who demanded certain features; features that they had not yet built, but had already sold! Their first product which was a search optimizer, saw a good number of interested customers sign up with them. But they also saw a lot of churn. They found that customers were not following the recommendations made by the tool and thus didn't see value. When trying to explain how to use the tool, they hit upon the idea of whatfix . It was a tough call to give up a product that was earning them money and go after one that they thought had more promise. But they were certain they could do only one. If you have a unique product, your customers aren’t limited by geographies They have customers in Italy, France, Holland, Canada and the US. The quote on his last slide summed up their experience really well.

                "Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.” Wow!


Talk Show - Lessons in Leadership and Entrepreneurship

The talk show was at best an OK. Nothing to write home about (or any other place). Other than the usual suspects on the 'couch', the only variation was Madhuri Hegde, who is into translation and localization. I wish someone asked these questions before these 'talk shows'. What would you want your audience to remember after the show? Is there a clear theme? Will your audience be able to understand what you are trying to do? Is it relevant? and more importantly Who is your audience? What do you think they are expecting? I'd really like to know what the answers were. I for one, remain clueless.

Personal Excellence Workshop

Brij’s workshop on personal excellence was about problem solving using an expand, explore and converge methodology. The group was divided into groups of 3 with each participant describing a problem and the other two using hints on the screen to expand and explore the problem before converging to a set of solutions. It would have been awesome if Brij started by showing us how to use the method maybe by doing a role play. Some of us couldn’t relate most of the questions to the problems being discussed. But I guess, in the given time, it’s as much as can be done.

PACE - Operational Excellence and Performance Acceleration

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Rajiv says it’s possible. But I think what would be more effective is to simply fix the chimp who did the hiring! The session started with the following video.

I'm sure that anyone who's looked up motivation has watched this one, at some point of time. Anyway, PACE stands for Performance Acceleration is a function of Competence Enhancement. Other than some anecdotes, I felt the whole thing seemed more like a trailer promoting the training program he conducts and a book he’s writing. This was complete with a live testimony from a customer who he ‘dragged’ along. PACE is a program designed to constantly improve performance and stop companies from constant fire fighting. (Sometimes just allowing things to burn is itself a solution. Ask our farmers!) The five steps involved in this process are awareness, aspiration creation, analysis, action planning and achievement. Yeah, you noticed it too? Someone has gone through a lot of trouble to get all the words start with an ‘A’.
There was one anecdote that he shared about a mountaineer he met at a Malaysian airport (very important, not just any airport) who had scaled the Everest. This guy, when nearing the peak developed frost bite and had the option of going back to the nearest base camp to get help or snipping off some of his fingers and marching ahead. Some people do some rather illogical things when it's cold! This guy snipped off 6 of his fingers and proceeded to the peak. There have been people who climbed Everest and returned with all body parts intact. Yes, in life you have to make choices. The choice of 'returning  now to fight another day' has worked for others. 
The way he was flipping through the slides, I thought the session would end with one of those limited offer pitches “if you approach us in the next week, there’s a discount, but only in the next week… remember”. But thankfully, it didn't. And the highlight of the session was clearly when he was narrating a joke like it was an incident. Unfortunately, everyone had already heard the punch line. The response was a damp silence. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes at that time. If there was anything to learn from that incident, it was on how to carry on speaking like nothing happened!

Innovation Workshop

This one also started with a video. I'm sure you are aware of the Fun Theory. If not please refresh your memory

There were two things that were at the core of the workshop. Other than of course, having fun. Yeah we got to blow balloons and build towers using them. We tried to. At least with the balloons that didn't go "boom". Coming back to the two things. Given that 90% of all internet traffic by 2017 is going to be video, one topic was the new shape of content. And the other was a Ground Reality - the grim situation in documentation where many companies were laying off writers (of course among other roles). We looked at average TW wages and how the Indian writer's wages were not all that competitive anymore. Organizations have the option of hiring from timezones that are closer to them (including Mexico and Europe). Not to forget Philippines. Many companies now even have data on why off-shoring to India does not work. So as part of 4 teams, we had to come up with ideas on the two topics. This was after our attempts to build a balloon tower using just balloons and some twine. At the end of the stipulated 5 minutes, two towers hung from the ceiling! There was one tower built with chairs (someone forgot about the balloons)! And one more 'tower' was struggling with midlife crisis! There was one question that the facilitators asked " In all the years you've been in documentation, has anyone in the audience come up with some innovation that made a big difference? There was only one answer, and even that was about not documenting procedures. (I can't resist this, but if some people focused a little more on collaboration and synergy, set aside personal differences and stopped deleting posts just because it had a 3 letter word in it, we'd probably make some headway in that area. Yeah ouch!)

Some of the questions asked/points discussed were

Can documentation become a profit center? Who's least affected in times of a recession? Why does documentation always have to prove value? Which teams don't have to move a finger to show the value they add? Can we take a few notes from them? What are our core strengths? Can we leverage any of these strengths to stop being a cost center? Would learning a new language help? How can we improve customer experience? Can we try something new using augmented reality? Would we be a natural choice when it comes to building customer communities? Do attitudes need to be changed? Does it make sense to specialize in a domain? What about getting into user experience?

State of Structured Authoring

And I have so many Adobe product discs, as part of conference kits or otherwise, that I think Adobe can point to me if anyone wants one : ) Adobe was the sole sponsor to this event. So giving them a slot makes sense. But Structured authoring as a topic? Adobe has so many creative people, (some of their ads at the venue were proof of it), I’m sure they could have come up with something better, more relevant. Was that really what Adobe really wanted to talk about? Was structured authoring what the audience wanted to hear? Well, there were some interesting statistics shared, but other than that, I’d just have to say that it was 30 minutes in lost opportunity. Maybe it's time to take a look at how Parth (when he worked with Adobe) did it in the 14th STC conference as a key note speaker.

Panel Discussion

The panel was different and had experts from different domains and different functions. One of the panelists talked about how he's never looked at the manual of any phone he's bought. (Well, looks like he's not doing much with the phone.) Another panelist almost said documentation was going away. It would DIE! Till someone in the crowd reminded him about statutory requirements. It's not going away alright, but will you be the one who will continue to do it? If we did what we've always done, how long can we continue doing what we are doing was one of the questions Sandhya asked. Most of the replies was around 3 years. The panel felt that the speed of products going live was increasing so much that lead times have becoming considerably shorter. Which leaves very little time for those documenting it. The panel also looked at why downsizing was happening to documentation teams. One of the thoughts was because many Indian teams managed documentation for sustenance products. When the strategy around the product changed, it is bound to impact support teams. 
There was talk about how aircraft maintenance is done using the manuals and how the direction going forward is to integrate help very closely with the product. There's no panel discussion complete without touching up on Apple. The product that doesn't need any documentation. But in fact as one of the panelists said, does have loads of documentation  online. One of the participants thought it would be great to involve documentation right from design, but practically, that does not really happen.

TC World conferences had a few things unique and one of them was that participants had a copy of the presentations (at least some of them) even before the presentations started. All on a pen drive. Did not happen this time. And that's only one of the reasons why it's probably a case of diminishing returns. And gauging expressions/body language from a few other participants I spoke to, it's not just me.

Coming up next: If I had to choose between attending the TC World Conference OR STC annual Conference (any one), which one would I choose? The cat's probably already out of the bag on this one.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

whatfix - an interactive help tool, and then some.

Imagine creating content just once. Did you say single sourcing? Let’s try that again. What if I told you that there's this tool that in a single effort (project) can create everything from flat documents, to slideshows to videos? Yes, videos. If I told you the tool starts with a ‘w’, I won’t be surprised if your first thought was ‘Wow!’ It's a very neat idea for interactive help. It’s cloud based, and really simple to use. Very practical. Not to mention that it kicks some serious butt when it comes to the competition in the same area. (Area = interactive tool, not the body part mentioned earlier). Well, it’s not as sophisticated as some of the other tools, but hey, when you see it work, and see how it gets the job done, it will leave you wondering if you really need more. After all, why use complicated tools when you are actually trying to uncomplicate things? Still not impressed? It's also free to try: )

Let's start at the beginning. Two weeks back, GT Nexus Software, Bangalore hosted an STC learning session for technical writers in Bangalore. One of the sessions was about an interactive cloud based tool called whatfix. The capabilities of this tool are pretty impressive. It basically allows you to create a layer of help over any application. Any with a capital A. Augmented reality - check. A one time effort by a writer can be used to create procedural documents and videos simultaneously. This tool is integrated with Google analytics, which as you know will tell you how the content is being used. To integrate help on the application, all that is needed is a small java plug (they provide) that needs to be inserted in the code - once. Users have the option of being hand held through the steps, while they see help as a layer over the application. Pretty neat. Users also have the option to view help as a video, slide show, or a conventional document (with screen shots). Maintenance is a breeze. Any changes to the UI, will mean that only those specific steps need to be replaced, and not the entire procedure. When asked about showing different content to different users on the same application page, the founders said it was possible as an out of the box solution.

What you’ll like
  • How simple it is to create and publish help. We always think about grandma when creating content. Well, in this case, it's grandma's turn to create content!
  • Cloud based. No installations. Scalable solutions. All the benefits of solutions on the cloud
  • It’s like a dashboard. Help and feedback links are always available. You aren’t negotiating with developers for small mercies.
  • Hand-holding for grandma’s friends. Sometimes we are all grand-something.
  • Ability of choosing output (flat doc, video, slideshare) is left to the user.
  • Content can be created as modules and reused
  • The layer that is used to explain things can be used to explain difficult to understand UI. All without getting into the developer's hair. 
  • Some amount of gamification used to encourage users to contribute content.
  • Ability  to add notes and tips along with the content and also provide links for more information without much distraction from the main task 
What will take some time to like/ won't like
  • The color scheme could be simpler/more appealing. Or maybe, I don’t like the dirty orange color used. For a tool this simple, I’d use more whites. I understand all this is customizable. But it’s important to get that first impression right.
  • They are still working on adding audio to videos.
  • You can’t port content. There’s always legacy content. If you choose to switch, prepare to do a lot of scratching… from scratch! But it's going to be a quick scratch to create.
  • The majority of our content is procedural. And the focus of this tool is also on how to do something. It might not be the best tool to explain concepts, complex troubleshooting, why we do something, etc. (They are working on such online help scenarios)
  • Navigation might need some work
  • While most of the UI is intuitive, some of it isn’t. For example, the see live link is actually a hand holding method of showing the user help and getting the user to perform the task, instead of just reading about it. I’d have used something like Let's Do it.
  • Once you maximise the screen, the minimise button goes to the bottom of the page. Most people look for it on the top of a screen.
  • Feedback cannot be gathered at a page level. Again, work in progress.
  • Not 508 compliant yet
  • Video content by default is stored on Youtube. The paid version allows customization to other (private) hosting destinations.
They should have called it something else. whatfix simply doesn't just register. But that didn't seem to be a problem with whatfix customers that includes Flipkart and P&G. There might be some big names who will try to acquire them. I just hope they hold on and don't sell!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Information Architecture at Cisco - demistifyed

The STC learning session held at Cisco on 20th September, can probably be summed up with the following quote

“Without understanding how people use your products and information, you are more likely to develop information that meets the needs of your authors or your subject matter experts rather than those who need to use your products and services to meet their goals and get their jobs done”

- JoAnn Hackos (in her book Information Development - Managing your Projects, Portfolio and People).

I've not comes across another statement that gets this close to home.

Here are a few notes I took down and hope you find useful.

  • Before Sandhya and team started the presentation, they asked the audience what their expectations were. The expectations ranged from understanding the new methodology, tools used, how this method impacted UI and Non UI products, how quality goals were measured, etc.
  • The session started with a video recording from Denise Asplund, the Global Head for tech com at Cisco. She welcomed the audience and gave a short introduction to the topic.
  • So it all started with the problems that the team were trying to solve. Some of the problems with tech comm at Cisco included a lot of content (unwieldy and huge), content difficult to find, finding relevant content, content that included marketing language, content that made the product appear more complex than it actually was
  • The first step at solving this problem was to find out where tech pubs was actually needed in the product lifecycle. They found that they were needed only in the pre-implementation, implementation and maintenance phases of their lifecycle.
  • Top down approach used to buy in stakeholders. Don't even try the bottom up approach. You might end up like that... bottom up.
  • Tech pubs gets involved in the process only after a customer is on board. Thus there was no need to sell the product to existing customers. That task is left to marketing/sales. All such content was removed. The team refused to include marketing content. Lucky team!
  • Customers who were used to seeing marketing information (about features, etc) were pointed to marketing information (managed by other teams)
  • Different types of users, their skills, and experience levels were analyzed and personas created.
  • An exercise to identify key workflows was then made and the workflows were mapped to the personas.
  • It was only after the above steps were completed that the documentation set was finalized.
  • Content strategy and content delivery models developed. (Who to write to, what to write, what not to write, defect workflow, etc)
  • Use web analytics whenever available to understand content/product usage. Talk to marketing/sales when the product is new. Use use cases.
  • Two important questions to keep in mind when creating content – Who is the product aimed at? Why would someone use this product
  • Some of the questions to ask to arrive at conceptual content – What is this feature about, why is it required? What problem does it solve? Who will benefit and at what stage (of the lifecycle) will they use the feature? What problems can arise (troubleshooting)
  • The first step at this change is to commit to this sort of information architecture. It requires a mindset change and can only succeed if driven from the top. This method needs to align with the development methodology used (agile/waterfall)
  • When trying to influence stakeholders, include reasoning for the change
We at GT Nexus, also use a workflow based documentation approach. Of course our domain (supply chain) is much more complex, with users interacting with each other using our product and processes. What we did was to chart out the big picture as a workflow. When would each kind of user perform a certain task. How does that task impact other stakeholders in the process? Users not only get to see the big picture, but can also figure out where they come in. 
I wish we could show you some of the documentation as examples. But then, we'd probably have to kill you ;)

What could have been better.
  • Most of us had to wait outside the gate for nearly an hour. Cisco has an 'escort' rule in place, where visitors need to be escorted by employees at all times. (I was thanking my stars that the rest rooms didn’t need access cards! You know... or we'd need escorts to go as well.) Reception didn’t seem to be aware that an event was happening. Neither did they know whom to call and inform. The event was supposed to start at 10, but even after half an hour, we were at the gates trying to 'negotiate'. We were let in only after 10.30 am. The phone number given on the confirmation email was not being answered. Not a very pleasant experience to start with.
  • Both the font size and colors used in the presentation made it very difficult to view/read the text. I've noticed this at other sessions too. Perhaps STC should have a say in this, publish certain guidelines and maybe review the presentation once before it is D-day. Please.
  • Disappointing to see the poor attendance at such events. Even from Cisco. From what Sumathy says, she hardly sees any attendance from writers in events held in other companies. That’s probably why someone had the idea of working on the mountain instead of Mohammed. Perhaps it time to go back to Mohammed. 
  • Registration shouldn't be free. Charge a nominal amount which gets reimbursed at the venue/refunded back to the account. Those who don't turn up... well they just treated those who attendees to some snacks : )
The icing on the cake. 

Some time back, I had written an elaborate procedure on TWIN on how to file one's income tax returns online. (I'm sorry to say this, but the TWIN site is currently just a shadow of what it once was. Search doesn't work. We can't create new content. Lots of spam comments. Articles are missing and there's a general apathy that gets under your skin. I could have have linked the article here, but can't find it). The article was titled 'Fire Your Accountant' and had a step by step procedure on how to look up your form 16, identify and use the required information to complete and submit the IT return. Believe me, it's much easier to file returns now. But the procedure documented the process when it was not so simple.  That's putting it mildly.
So coming back to the subject, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the writers who attended the workshop came to me and said he was able to file his returns by just referring the page I created. Mighty pleased. 
We have come back full circle to the quote we started with. Now that's RTFM for you!